Tribute to India’s Birdman: Dr. Salim Ali

330px-Salim_ali_mnsSalim Ali’s birthday falls on 12 Nov. He was born in 1896 and passed away in 1987. He may be credited with single-handedly bringing ornithology to India. And this interest in ornithology, as it spread, led to interest in wildlife and biodiversity; in environmental issues; in conservation; and in sustainable development.

He inspired generations in India and created a culture of systematic and scientific study of wildlife. If his ‘Book of Indian Birds’ is the easy guide which every bird watcher starts with, the landmark ten volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan which he wrote with Dillon Ripley is the authoritative guide. Dr. Salim Ali was respected across the world, and decorated with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.

On this his birth anniversary, here are excerpts from an interview of Dr. Salim Ali (when he was 85+ years of age!), with Dr. HSA Yahya of Aligarh Muslim University, and taken from http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/ envis/doc97html/biosalim24.html. My only contribution is to have picked out two sections that I found of particular interest.

MONEY MATTERS NOT A JOT

‘Then I told Prater ” look we have so many places in India and we know nothing about birds.”  Hyderabad for instance, was a complete blank on the ornithological map. So I said ” if you write to the British Residents who are really interested in these kinds of things we can probably get some financial support. I do not want any pay. I only want my expenses paid and I will be quite happy to go, study and collect birds.”So the Society got in touch with the Hyderabad Government which had largely British heads of Departments. They were very glad. But it is really quite laughable, the amount we asked for and which we got and in which I was able to complete the survey. I think for the whole of the Hyderabad State survey for six months we got about 6000 Rupees (NOTE: THIS WAS WAY BEFORE INDEPENDENCE!).  Yes, six thousand which included the food of the skinner, our own food, cost of travelling and everything (laughter)! We were able to do it with a lot of trouble, many of our camp shifts had to be done by bullock carts because there were no roads in the places where we were camping. After Hyderabad I did Kerala which was then two states, Cochin and Travancore. Then one after the other Central India, Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal. So all these were done under the same system: asking for small amounts and doing it. I could do it because I had the time, I mean, I was just doing it and nothing else and I did not have any ambition to try again for some bigger job somewhere and so on. Not because bigger jobs were not there and perhaps I would have not got them, but they were not in the line in which I was interested.’

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A LIKE-MINDED PARTNER IN FOLLOWING A PASSION

‘I tried all kinds of jobs for a long time. Finally, I said that, well, I have all these trainings and I have my chief interest in birds so why should I not do this on my own. My wife had a little money and I had a little investment and so on. Then we worked out and found that we had just enough if we left Bombay, which was very expensive and went to live in some quieter place which would give more facilities for bird study, we will be far happier. My great fortune was that my wife who had had all her education in England and been used to quite a different sort of life to what she would have in the kind of work I wished to do. She insisted that I should take up only the work that I was interested to do. She said ” now we have enough to live quietly, we would go to some small place, I will be quite happy.” She was keen on poetry and Urdu and various kinds of reading and so on. Then she got very interested in birds too, and in outdoor life and in things she had never had any experience in England of.’

From: TRANSCRIPT OF AN INTERVIEW WITH SALIM ALI by Dr H S A Yahya Reader, Centre for wildlife & ornithology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

–Meena

PS: ‘The Fall of a Sparrow’ his autobiography,  is a must-read.

The Dodo and The Myna

The Dodo is the textbook example of man’s role in driving other species to extinction. This defenceless bird was hunted and harried to disappearance through the appearance of humans on the uninhabited island of what is now called Mauritius. Sailors on the high seas—the Arabs, the Portuguese and then the Dutch, discovered and re-discovered the pristine isle. For dodos, the beginning of the end was in 1598 when the Dutch discovered them on the island. Dodos were flightless birds, and also fearless because they had never encountered predators. So when humans appeared with their guns and weapons, they had no clue how to protect themselves. Moreover, humans brought along dogs, cats, pigs, rats—all which hunted the birds and raided their nests. Till there were none left.

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But if this is a story of man’s role in the loss of a species, what follows is an equally sorry tale of havoc cause by man’s deliberate introduction of a species into an alien eco-system. And on the very same island of Mauritius!

Sugarcane did and continues to play a key role in the economy of Mauritius. The sugarcane crop in Mauritius was beset by grasshoppers, which ate the leaves. In the 1780s, the French deliberately introduced mynas to the island to help control these. To a certain extent they did, but soon enough the mynas figured out the local lizards were easier to catch than the grasshoppers, and so made the lizards the mainstay of their diet. One consequence of this was that the insects that the lizards fed on multiplied, as they now had no predators! And even more seriously perhaps, the mynas themselves became pests to native species. Mynas are by nature aggressive and raid nests for eggs and newly hatched chicks. They compete with native birds for nesting sites. In Mauritius, they have been known to compete with an endemic species, the endangered Echo Parakeet, for nesting spaces.

Island ecosystems are very special. Human interventions can have disastrous results. To quote the IUCN Island Ecosystem Specialist Group:

‘Earth is home to over 100,000 islands, which support 20% of global biodiversity. The characteristics of size, shape and degree of isolation make many of these islands ecologically and culturally unique.

However, these same characteristics also make islands fragile and vulnerable ecosystems. Islands have the highest proportion of recorded species extinctions. Eighty percent of known species extinctions have occurred on islands and currently 45 percent of IUCN Red List endangered species occur on islands.’

Mauritius and all islands are beautiful and special! Let’s hope that we humans can preserve what makes them special, and leave the generations to follow this precious legacy.

An interesting aside:  A Mughal-time painting found in St. Petersburg  shows a dodo along with several Indian birds. The painting is believed to be from the 17th century and is attributed to the artist Ustad Mansur. The bird depicted probably lived in Emperor Jahangir’s zoo in Surat!

–Meena

Magnificence—Endangered

Not just endangered, critically endangered. We are talking of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). There are only about 200 birds left in the wild in India, mainly in Rajasthan and Gujarat. There are a few birds still in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. But they have completely disappeared from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu.

GIB has been listed as Critically Endangered in 2011 on the IUCN Red List, which means that it faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. When we say that a species is extinct it means that there is not be a single living member left of that species.

The Great Indian Bustard is a magnificent bird, standing about 1 metre tall. Its wingspan is more than 2 metres. It is mostly brown, with a light-coloured head and neck. The distinguishing feature is the black crown on the head. Interestingly although they look closer to ostriches or cranes, most recent research shows that the Bustard family is more closely related to the cuckoo family!

At about 15 kg, it is the heaviest flier in India, but not in the world. The world record is held by a relative, if we may call it that, the Kori Bustard which is found in Africa. The Kori often weighs upwards of 18 kg.

These birds live in wide open landscapes which have sparse grasses and shrubs. They spend most of their time on the ground. Their long legs and front-facing toes help them to run fast. Although they are usually seen striding or running, they also have strong wings and can fly well.

Their diet varies depending on what is available during a particular season. These birds feed on grass seeds, agricultural crops such as groundnuts, millets and legumes, as well as insects like grasshoppers and beetles, and rodents and lizards

They usually breed in the monsoon season which is when food is most easily available. The female scrapes the soil in a secluded place to lay her egg. Generally, she lays only one egg. She incubates the egg for 25 days before the chick is hatched. The exposed egg is always in danger from predators. The mother has to be alert to keep the egg and the new chick safe. The male does not play any part in making the nest, incubation or raising of the chick. It is the Mother GIB who does this alone!

What are the threats? Plenty! GIB can be found in some parts Pakistan also, and there, it is still hunted. There is also some amount of poaching occurring in India. Apart from that, the natural home of these birds is reducing in size. A major cause for this is expansion of agricultural fields and increase in mechanized farming in the areas where the GIB live. This also means that human settlements get closer. Then there other very mundane reasons. Dogs are a major threat to GIBs. As I told you, GIBs lay their eggs on the ground. With the villages so close, dogs often eat the eggs. Also, there has been a huge increase in high tension electric wires in the habitat area. GIBs often dash against these and get electrocuted. They may also get hit by fast-moving vehicles.

Only urgent mission-mode action can save the GIB. Can we let this magnificent bird got the way of the Dodo?

–Meena and Mamata

FrogFest

Over 35 years ago, when I spent two years living in Nairobi, my sister Seema, then a young zoology student came to visit. Among the souvenirs she picked up from the local market was a potholder made of cane that was shaped like a frog. After that trip, wherever she went, it was almost as if frogs were jumping out from everywhere, urging to be picked up! Frogs in all materials, shapes, sizes and poses. And so, Seema became a ‘frog collector’! It also made it easy for friends and family to find her a gift. Over the years, the frog artefact collection grew and grew till her house was bursting at the seams with frogs big and small. One day the thought came, how could this be shared with more people, and what would be the purpose of the sharing? Over a couple of years, and a combination of fortuitous circumstances, this idea metamorphosed into FrogFest.

FrogFest began as a brainchild of Seema’s old school friend Aditya Arya whose creative mind has always leapt way ahead of the average plodders and hoppers. Let’s do an exhibition called FrogArt, he said. With his vast experience in photography and exhibit design, he offered to curate the show. That done, it worked out that WWF offered to host the display. This was indeed serendipity! WWF was where Seema began her professional life as a volunteer (while still a college student). What better way to “give back” to an institution that was the first to nurture what became a lifelong passion (as well as vocation) for biodiversity and conservation!

Then came the challenge—how to use the frog artefacts to highlight the larger issues of amphibian conservation; how to creatively bridge the traditional gap between Art and Science? Seema invited me to join the team as co-curator, to apply my experience as an environmental educator. After six months of being steeped in all matters Batrachian (along the way we discovered that the study of frogs was known as Batrachology!) we were ready to launch FrogFest—Celebrating Frogs in Art and Nature.

As the name suggests, FrogFest focuses on the amazingly diverse interpretations of a single element of nature–the frog! It showcases Seema Bhatt’s personal collection of frog artefacts from over 40 countries, including a rendering of frogs in folk art, as well as contemporary art by young artists.

The display of the artefacts and art is supported by a series of panels that highlight the fascinating aspects of frogs, and the conservation significance of frogs in nature. Far from the dusty tomes of academic journals, the visual-rich and reader-friendly panels also offer a peep into the fascinating world of frogs in India and the important initiatives to conserve them.These have been supported and enriched with expert inputs from Dr S.D. Biju and Dr Gururaja, India’s foremost amphibian scientists.

 

The bridge between art and nature is further strengthened by the organisation and display of artefacts. For example, where the panel describes the role of colour in frogs in Nature, there is also a display of nearly a hundred frog artefacts, made from glass, ceramic, clay, stone and more, with vibrant colours, along with a ‘Frogtoid’ that reminds that while artists have let their imagination run riot, nature has bestowed frogs with a colour palette on which their very survival depends (attracting mates, warning predators).

 

With its brilliant interweaving of the facts and fun FrogFest offers a feast for the senses. It also provides food for thought by putting the spotlight on the Frog. At a time when the focus of wildlife conservation is primarily on charismatic ‘megafauna’, there is a dire need to reflect on the conservation of smaller, but equally significant fauna around us. While frogs may not always hit the headlines as the ‘Superstars’ of the grand epic of nature, they are no less fascinating, and indeed, no less important in the Web of Life.

FrogFest is on at WWF India, 172-B Lodi Road, New Delhi till the end of April 2018.

–Mamata